Commonwealth’s Attorney quiet about appointment, which happened months ago
After ignoring months of repeated inquiries by the Rappahannock News on the status of a Virginia State Police investigation launched in February 2017 surrounding Rappahannock County government procurement practices, Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff acknowledged this week that a special prosecutor was appointed over four months ago to lead the investigation.
Why Goff, an elected official, did not disclose key information about the status of one of the most important matters before his office is not known.
A written order, naming Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Walther as special prosecutor in the case, was signed by Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker on Nov. 13, 2017.
The revelation of the special prosecutor came in response to a member of a Rappahannock County grand jury asking that the court impanel a special grand jury to look into the investigation of the county’s procurement practices.
Ron Frazier, a member of a grand jury seated Monday in Rappahannock County Circuit Court to consider criminal indictments in unrelated matters, asked the judge in open court to form a special grand jury. Frazier is also the Jackson district supervisor.
This newspaper sent an email inquiry to Goff on Tuesday asking about the possible formation of a special grand jury, or if a special prosecutor had been appointed in the case and whether criminal charges would be brought against anyone named in the investigation.
Goff responded in an email to only one of the questions.
“No, the Grand Jury did not ask for a special grand jury,” the commonwealth’s attorney wrote. “Ron Frazier did as a member of the Grand Jury, but no one else, and then he withdrew his request, so no special grand jury is ‘in the works.’ I decline to comment further.”
But pressed for answers that same afternoon outside the courthouse, Goff confirmed that Walther had been appointed “months ago.”
When asked why he had not shared this information before now, despite repeated inquiries over the past six months, Goff simply stated: “It’s in the public record.”
Goff declined to answer whether appointing a special prosecutor meant that criminal charges are pending from the Virginia State Police probe.
“That’s up to the special prosecutor to determine,” Goff said.
Goff’s choice not to prosecute the case would be a normal course of action, as the investigation is known to involve current and former Rappahannock County employees. The November order reads in part that Goff “stated to the Circuit Court that he is so situated with respect to the accused in this matter that it would be improper for him to act as Attorney for the Commonwealth in this case, and requested that a Special prosecutor be appointed.”
The mandatory state police investigation was launched in February of last year in the wake of a letter that same month from Rappahannock County Treasurer Debbie Knick to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors. In the correspondence, the county treasurer cited instances where one or more employees failed to follow proper expense and payroll procedures or else did not conduct sufficient oversight of budgeting and spending.
The investigation, state authorities said, examined spending and procurement activities beginning in 2016, with an eye toward possible misappropriation of funds by one or more Rappahannock County employees.
Virginia State Police Special Agent W.W. Talbert delivered the state’s findings to Goff in early September. At that time, Talbert said the case remains “open” until the attorney decides to either prosecute or drop the charges.
In the six months since Goff received the report, he has declined to offer any information about the investigation, indicating only that it was on-going.
“I haven’t finished my part of that” investigation, Goff told the News in October when approached on the sidewalk outside his Gay Street office, answering “yep” when asked to confirm whether the case remained open.
Sgt. David Ostwinkle of the State Police Bureau of Legal Affairs described the general activity reported in Rappahannock County as “a misappropriation of public funds” and characterized potential damages or injuries as “currency embezzlement.”
Those connected with the probe declined to identify anybody who might be targeted. Walther did not return a call for comment.